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The time is ripe to think about planting seeds for St. Louis gardens
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The demand for seeds has been so overwhelming that companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. in Mansfield, Missouri, have had to shut their websites down from time to time just to get caught up.
Once your plants have outgrown their seed cells, replant them in larger containers and begin to harden them off by taking them outdoors for a few hours a day.
A variety of seed packets from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co.
There is something strange going on in my basement. In the unfinished part, I can see a blueish light glowing and hear the whir of fan blades. My husband, a master-gardener-in-training, has erected shelves and filled them with rows and rows of pods of soil. Small plants grow from some of them.He’s never done this before, so I’m intrigued. Apparently, now is roughly the time to start growing plants indoors from seed for your outdoor gardens, or at least to start planning for it, depending on what you are growing. So for all those who started pandemic victory gardens last year, take note.When stay-at-home orders took effect last spring, many of us hunkered down in an effort to control the spread of the coronavirus. The industrious started gardens as a family-friendly hobby that could also ease concerns over food security as some grocery store shelves were laid bare by hoarding and issues with supply.Among the things flying off the shelves: seed packets. Last spring, Burpee chairman George Ball told the Associated Press that the buying spree he was seeing was “so different that it’s unrecognizable in terms of just the sheer demand.”But the run on seeds didn’t stop with last spring. As the pandemic has worn on, some seed companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. in Mansfield, Missouri, have had to shut their websites down from time to time as overwhelming demand exceeded supply.
“Really just to get caught up,” says Kathy McFarland, media and public relations director at Baker Creek (rareseeds.com). McFarland, who has worked at the company for 12 years and is herself an avid gardener, says she has been blown away by the increased interest in growing from seed and is surprised it’s continued nearly a year later.“Our sales are five to six times as much as this time last year, and last year was a huge increase. It’s been absolutely mind-boggling.” She says Baker Creek has seen people ordering seeds out of season all year long, for instance lettuce seeds in the middle of summer, as interest in gardening continues.She thinks it’s partly because of food insecurity and partly because people still have more time on their hands. And maybe also because they found something they enjoy and can do as a family.“I think it’s a real back-to-home movement. … I’m not sure there is any one particular reason, but a whole lot of reasons,” McFarland said.Why do itWhy plant seeds as opposed to taking the simple route and buying transplants? Transplants are certainly easier, and for new gardeners they may be a better bet, but there are benefits to growing from seed, as well.For one, seeds are considerably cheaper. “Cost is a big factor,” said Justin H. Keay, a field specialist in horticulture with the University of Missouri Extension office for the St. Louis metro area. ”A decent size tomato plant will cost you 3 or 4 bucks,” he said. “But you can get a whole package of seed for that price.”
Use a thermometer (in this case we used a meat thermometer) to make sure your seeds are staying warm enough to germinate. You want them about 75 to 85 degrees.
Brian Sirimaturos, the Garden Voyeur
With seed you also can get more varieties. For instance, maybe your garden store sells just five or six varieties of tomato plants, but at Baker Creek you will find 85 varieties, divided into eight color categories, including pink and striped.And Keay notes that if you are fairly skilled with growing from seed, you can control the quality of your plants. They won’t have been shipped from field to nursery, they won’t sit on shelves, and there’s a lower risk of them becoming root bound in their containers.In addition, some plants just don’t transplant well. It’s easier to bury carrot or beet seeds into the soil and watch them grow from there.But for many gardeners, there’s also the sense of accomplishment. You turned a tiny seed into a plant, which will produce fruit, which will feed your family. And as gardeners will tell you, growing from seed also helps build anticipation for the season during the boring winter months.How to do itIf the constant sighs I hear coming from my husband’s little basement growing area are any indication, starting seeds indoors is not as easy as you might think. Here are some tips from Keay and the University of Missouri extension.1. Purchase the seeds. And this may be the tricky part. “Order your seed now, for sure,” says Keay. But be sure to check the website for shipping arrival times as many seed companies are backlogged.McFarland says one reason they have been so busy is because all of their seeds are heirloom and organic. “You can get the seeds from the fruits or vegetable and use them next year,” something you may not be able to do with genetically modified seeds. Which brings us to the fact that yes, if you had saved seeds from last year’s harvest, those may be planted this year. But Keay encourages gardeners to study up on seed saving, as there is a risk of seed-borne diseases being passed to new plants.2. Get the timing right. The goal with seed starting is to have your seedlings ready to go outside when the weather is favorable. Seeds take four to eight weeks before they are ready to be transplanted. Find your plant on the University of Missouri’s growing calendar (extension.missouri.edu/g6201), learn how long it takes to grow from seed (extension.missouri.edu/publications/g6570), and create a schedule, working backward. For instance, tomatoes can go in the ground at the beginning of May (though some recommend Mother’s Day to be safe); they take 8 weeks to grow; so now, the beginning of March, is the perfect time to plant tomato seeds.
Use a domed seed-starting kit such as this to ensure the proper humidity to get your seeds to germinate.
Brian Sirimaturos, the Garden Voyeur
3. Find the right containers and add the right seed-starting medium (not basic garden soil). Keay recommends a seed tray kit with individual cells and a plastic dome. Sometimes they come filled with soil. If not, fill them with a light peat mixture made for seed-growing. But you will also need bigger containers with soil for when seeds germinate and outgrow those little cells.4. Plant your seeds. Moisten the soil, make a little indentation, and plant your seeds in it, then lightly cover with soil. Put the dome back on and wait for them to germinate.5. Take care of your seeds. You will need to heat and water and time. Keay says wet the potting mix and keep the cells moist, but you won’t need to add much water until they germinate.
Fans can be used to help strengthen the seedlings and get them used to the elements. The air also keeps the top of the soil dry so you don’t have fungus and mold issues.
Amy Bertrand, Post-Dispatch
McFarland says Baker Creek often gets questions about why some seeds, particularly peppers and tomatoes, are not germinating. “Put a heat mat underneath them,” she says. “I’ve even used a heating pad, turning it off and on.” Keay recommends using a cheap thermometer to detect the temperature inside the dome. It usually needs to be 75-85 degrees.6. After germination. Once you see a sprout, you’ll want to keep the soil moist, but not drowning. Keay likes to flip his dome over or use a tray and fill it with an inch or two of water and set the seed tray in it temporarily, letting plants get water from the bottom. You’ll also want to supply light. A south-facing window could provide enough warmth and sun, but your plants may need a bigger boost. A fluorescent or LED light, placed 3 to 4 inches from the plants, will work.Keay also recommends using a fan, oscillating if possible, to blow on the tiny plants. Think of it as training for when they will be big boys, facing the elements outside.
Containers for transplants don’t have to be fancy or costly, reuse old food and drink cans. Just be sure to label them. Photo by Brian Sirimaturos, the Garden Voyeur
7. Harden them off. As plants outgrow their cells, you’ll want to replant them in bigger containers. You could use saved containers from previous plant purchases. My husband uses cut-off soda cans and wine bottles sometimes. Then as the weather warms and it gets closer to the time you will be planting them in the ground, take plants outside on little field trips. Have them spend a few hours on your porch or deck every day getting some sun and adjusting to outdoor elements. And then when it’s time, plant them in your garden and watch them grow.
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